Eagle River's proposed Vet Village gains wider attention
A plan to house homeless Anchorage veterans in Eagle River is drawing Outside interest, according to its organizer.
Ric Davidge, founding chairman of the Alaska Veterans Foundation, said the group's proposed Vet Village is being watched closely by leaders far beyond Alaska.
"There is a lot of interest in the Lower 48," Davidge said. "All 49 of the other states want to come here and see how it works once it gets going. It's a different idea and the integration of businesses is found to be very compelling. That's why we want to do it and be very successful financially and functionally. In 18 to 20 months it could be financially sustainable."
The project had its genesis about six years ago, when five homeless veterans died on the streets of Anchorage.
"They froze to death," Davidge said. "Often veterans who commit suicide are homeless. They’ve lost hope basically."
Davidge, a military veteran himself, says after the deaths, the state Senate approached his foundation to come up with a solution and formal proposal on how to eliminate homeless veteran deaths. That led to three or four years of what Davidge called "nothing but research" by the group.
"Surprisingly, I found out that homeless veterans don’t want to live in Anchorage, almost overwhelmingly," Davidge said. "That's because they say they get sucked back into the bad habits that got them there in the first place. I asked the veterans where would you like to live and they said in a cabin in the woods. So that’s how that Idea developed."
It's a project Davidge has been working on for the better part of six years while trying to understand the problem. Over the years he's looked at around a dozen sites, the most favorable being in Eklutna and Eagle River.
"We have some specific requirements," Davidge said. "One, it must be in a rural place. Two, there have to be a few trees around and three, close to the VA clinic."
Davidge had his sights set on an area near Eklutna but those were dashed when a detox center was built in the area.
"That's fine, I'm fine with that," Davidge said. "It's a facility we really needed."
Now Davidge has targeted an area in Eagle River off Hiland Road, a 197-acre parcel owned by Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.
Over the summer, Davidge has attended a handful of Eagle River Community Council meetings including Eagle River Valley and South Fork, to share his vision and answer and questions residents may have. This fall he hopes to visit Washington, D.C. to get clearance for use of the JBER land.
"Things are progressing," Davidge said. "I'm in the process of getting new artist renderings and letters of support from various politicians who want to get on board."
Davidge is asking that the site be leased to the state, not sold or conveyed to the state and operated by its Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. He'd like the foundation to have a contract for the first three years.
Local leaders have also shown an interest in the group's plans.
"The devil is always in the details," said Anchorage Assembly member Amy Demboski, who represents Eagle River. "I'm relieved to see this group engaging with the Eagle River community. The concept is a good one. I think conceptually we know we need to help homeless veterans in Alaska. Alaska has a huge veteran population."
According to Davidge, roughly 80 to 100 homeless veterans are in Anchorage on any given day. The numbers across the state are a little more fuzzy.
"There is an obvious pre-judgement about homeless," Davidge said. "When I mention homeless, what do people think of? They think of Bean's Café, people on the street, all those kinds of things and those are simply not what this is all about. A lot of homeless people exploit our veterans, holding signs saying they are a vet when they are not."
Davidge says any concerns residents have about the proposed village are easily answered. One of the largest is whether veterans with mental illness would be triggered by a nearby firing range.
"What I ask these people is, are they military veterans?" Davidge said. "They say no and then I say they don't understand what these combat veterans have been through. All the people who live in Vet Village will know there is a firing range over there and they are training. You will recognize the sound of the weapons and that’s not a real problem."
Concerns also included added traffic to Hiland Road which Davidge says will be minimal at most. The village will use three vans to transport the veterans to their jobs.
"I think it’s going to be a great project," said South Fork resident Loni Quinn. "I'm really excited, minimal traffic obstructions with only three vans taking vets to and from work, I think it is great."
Residents also had concerns with veterans with mental illnesses straying.
"They are not criminals," Davidge said. "They're not wild animals. They are military veterans who actually prefer to be left alone. They will be required to work at least four hours a day. Some can work longer if they want and make more money. Because having the community of veterans, having that relationship, having the job and all those things makes a much more successful strategy."
A number of jobs and opportunities await the veterans should the project get off the ground.
"The goal is to help these people have productive lives," said Dan Stuart with People Ready, an employment agency. "Especially if they’ve come from areas where things haven’t gone the way they wanted them to. Yes we can put people to work and because they are veterans that is absolutely something we will do and I know the community will be supportive."
Stuart says he also knows the community's concerns, and not just anybody will be tossed into the work environment.
"Safety is paramount," Stuart said. "So, I'm not going to put people out on jobs that don’t have an alcohol or drug problem under control."
The Vet Village would be made up of 25 units close to a mess hall, one main building along with a gymnasium.
"Getting guys and gals back into that community of veterans is really, really critical," Davidge said. "They can feel safe, they can be honest with their fellow vets about who they are and what they have done. That’s all part of it. One of the fascinating things is every veteran has a skill. That’s what they did in the service. Many of them have very significant skills, they just don’t know how to market them."
If the project is greenlit, its initial funding would come from a state legislative grant. Funding after that hopefully could come from state alcohol consumption taxes.
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